HOW “HISTORY” IS MADE…

Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is turning out to be one of the more eye-opening and quotable books I’ve read in years. Here’s Leerhsen on the famous/infamous batting race of 1910, between Detroit’s Cobb (left, above) and Cleveland’s Napoleon Lajoie (a player so popular the Cleveland franchise in those days was called the Naps in his honor), which was not-quite-settled when Cobb sat out the final day, perhaps seeking to protect his seven-point lead, while Lajoie went eight-for-eight in a double-header in St. Louis and ended up hitting .384 to Cobb’s .383.

Seven of Lajoie’s eight hits were bunts down the third-base line, all with the Brown’s third-baseman playing in the outfield grass—and making no adjustments. From pages 239-240:

“Lajoie later said that he received a telegram of congratulations that evening signed by eight members of the Tigers. He never revealed their names, but presumably none was Ty Cobb. The story of the 1910 batting race has often been used to make the point that Cobb was widely disliked, and that many of his own teammates, as well as the St. Louis Browns, were pulling for Lajoie, who, though he had a temper—I’ve already mentioned the famous fight with (Elmer) Flick, and he once spit tobacco juice into an umpire’s eye—also had the decency to be not quite so outlandishly good as Cobb, and therefore to not attract so much attention, which he could in turn be resented for. Sports in 1910 still bore traces of nineteenth-century notions about honor and manliness and team play that, for some people, made standing out as an individual problematic—it was a little like standing out in Garrison Keillor’s not-so-imaginary version of small-town Minnesota. The president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, Charles William Elliot, thought that ball-carriers in football ought not search for holes in the line that could lead to gaudy breakaway runs, but should do the modest, gentlemanly thing and plow headfirst into the nearest man-pile. (Eliot also didn’t like baseball because he believed curveballs and other deceptive pitches to be unsportsmanlike.) Cobb stood out on purpose—it was an essential part of his “psychological” approach. Meanwhile the Frenchman was by all accounts avuncular and unpretentious—he wanted you to call him Larry; he carried a needle and thread to repair his (and other people’s) clothes, and, if you sat next to him on the bench, he might talk to you about his chicken farm. Probably even Cobb conceded that Larry was more likable than him.

But, Cobb aside for the moment, it was almost certainly not a universal outpouring of love for Nap Lajoie that led to the spectacle at Sportsman’s Park. One must also consider that many people, including players, gambled on baseball in those days, and that the Chalmers race (i.e., the batting race—then named after a company offering s new car to the winner) was a hot proposition with the bookmakers from coast to coast. (Peach Pie O’Connor [Browns manager] told the press he was leaving town soon to attend—and bet on—the World Series.) Many thousands likely wagered on who would win the car. It would be naïve to assume that money didn’t play a larger role in the Chalmers scandal than anyone’s pro-Lajoie, or anti-Cobb, feelings.

I’ve read a lot of pretty good history books where I didn’t learn as much as I did in those two paragraphs. And I was reminded of other things—like, for instance, the Black Sox scandal that happened nine years later did not spring from a vacuum.

The kicker to the above–and to how history is made–is that the subsequent stink resulted in the American League mysteriously finding a game that had been “missed” in the previous record-keeping in which Cobb had conveniently gone two-for-three, restoring his batting average lead by a fraction of a point and allowing him to be declared the official American League batting champion of 1910.

The Chalmers company gave both Cobb and Lajoie automobiles (probably a bigger deal to both men than who won the crown). Research conducted decades later concluded that the American League office had simply duplicated a game in which Cobb had a sufficient number of hits to allow him to win the batting title without looking too closely into what had transpired in St. Louis on the final day of the season. It took another decade and a thrown World Series for baseball to get serious about gambling.

As for Cobb being especially unpopular with his teammates (one of several canards Leerhsen debunks in this bio), one finds out a few pages later that they liked him sufficiently to stage baseball’s first player strike when they felt he was unjustly penalized for going after a crippled fan who had mercilessly heckled him during a game in New York. (How merciless? The New York fans took Cobb’s side–even though his heckler had no hands.) The strike lasted one game before Cobb himself begged his teammates to take the field because he knew how crippling the fines being threatened would be to them and their families.

You really should read this book.

12 thoughts on “HOW “HISTORY” IS MADE…

  1. The evidence is this? “It would be naïve to assume that money didn’t play a larger role in the Chalmers scandal than anyone’s pro-Lajoie, or anti-Cobb, feelings.” I’d throw away a book that made that argument.

    • Well, I’d say the evidence is this:

      “One must also consider that many people, including players, gambled on baseball in those days, and that the Chalmers race (i.e., the batting race—then named after a company offering s new car to the winner) was a hot proposition with the bookmakers from coast to coast.”

      Though even that only gives the gist. Sportswriters who were there in St. Louis began raising the gambling angle and putting pressure on the League office within hours after the last game. The League responded, of course, not with an investigation, but by “discovering” a couple of extra hits for Cobb.

      Given how prevalent gambling was in those days (evidence of which Leerhsen provides here and elsewhere, not that the info is anything new), his argument is sound and his opinion presented as such. He doesn’t suggest it’s provable, one way or the other.

      Point is, we’ll never know. But this does come in the context of Leerhsen consistently challenging throughout (and to the point of rendering it silly) the notion that Cobb was “hated” by either teammates, opponents or fans.

  2. There are a lot of reviews of Leerhsen’s book on the Internet, almost all of them glowing with praise. This is the one I just read because it seemed the most knowledgeable and articulate:

    http://jamesiska.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-georgia-peach.html

    But my favorite part of the lengthy article is the paragraph that begins with this sentence: “I thought of that the other day while attending a major league game with my kids.”

    • Yep, that all accords with what I’ve read so far. The best quote I ever read about Cobb was from Ring Lardner (spoken by a character in one of his stories):

      “If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.”

      Leerhsen catches that quality well. It really is an excellent book.

      • If you put a baseball bat from Cobb’s day alongside one today, and you weren’t a baseball fan, you might think they were from two different sports. Today’ bats are made exclusively to swing for the fence.

        I wonder if guys who don’t have a lot of power had some bats made like Cobb’s and learned how to use them (you don’t hold the end of the bat by the knob, you move your hands up a couple of inches, giving you considerably more control of the bat but with considerably less power), they might change their stats from .250 with 10 HRs to .300 with 2 HRs.

        We will probably never see this happen.

        PS: I’m thinking of giving the Leerhsen book to my Father for Christmas. Sounds like his kind of book.

        • Leerhsen spends some time on the bats (Cobb was apparently the first person to swing multiple bats in the on-deck circle in order the speed up his bat…plenty of people thought he was showing off–it became common practice when they saw him win all those batting titles)….And if your dad like’s either baseball or history, it should make an excellent gift! (And remember, if you order it through my site, I get a cut!)

    • I just woke up and didn’t notice that the comment HAD been accepted. It’s the one above that begins “There are a lot of reviews.” When I tried to post that a few hours ago, your site gave me a big reject notice.

      • Yeah, it’s here (I just responded)….I think I’m just going to have to live with some comments being delayed. My advice is to wait a few hours and check again.

        FWIW: I get the same problem now and then when I comment on your site and a few others…I have no idea why and nobody seems to have a good answer. If you find one, let me know!

      • Got it (and just responded). I just got an error too. I’m sure GoDaddy will tell me it’s a WordPress issue but if it keeps happening I’ll try to track down the reason. Right now, I think everybody is still blaming everything on the hurricane!

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